By: Frank G. Tunstall

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

“Parents ask me all the time,” says John O’Sullivan, famed coach of some of the world’s greatest soccer athletes, “if I think their child has what it takes to play at the college or professional level. They are asking if I think their kid has enough talent.”

My reply is: “How much are your kids willing to suffer?”

“The answer to that simple question will go a long way in determining whether any athlete will reach his potential, and perhaps play at an elite level.  Sorry to burst many bubbles, but if athletes are not willing to suffer, chances are slim they will make it. The will to suffer and endure not only separates average athletes from elite ones, but it separates talented elite athletes from their peers as well.”

When I read O’Sullivan’s insight, my thoughts immediately went to Jesus. Our Lord understood fully the relationship between suffering and success. For examples: He was willing to suffer shame, disgrace and abject rejection. He was accused of being a wine bibber and a friend of sinners. People told lies about Him. Some Pharisees turned their backs on Him when He walked by them. He was routinely contradicted. He was mercilessly whipped a few blows short of death. He was slapped. His beard was yanked out of his cheeks. He wore a crown of thorns. His own blood oozed into His eyes, causing searing pain and blurred vision. Jesus even paid the ultimate price – death by crucifixion.

Yes indeed, a direct relationship exists between Jesus’ suffering and His accomplishments. I will mention three achievements, but surely you can add many more.

1. His suffering and death made atonement for sin. This healed the broken relationship between God and man, and showed God is love.

2. His death and resurrection vindicated His teaching and sealed His promise to give eternal life to all who believe.

3. His suffering enabled Him to earn the status of the great High Priest of our profession who intercedes on our behalf at our heavenly Father’s right hand.

John O’Sullivan is surely right: great athletes show an amazing capacity to suffer, and a few earn the status of world class. But no world class athlete, for all of their painful training, comes close to the suffering Jesus endured during His ministry and on His cross. This also explains why we acclaim the very best athletes as world class, but only Jesus as the Savior of the world and the Son of God.

Would you please consider the price Joseph and Mary paid to obey God and bring Jesus into the world. Joseph faced the shock of his darling bride’s pregnancy, knowing he was not the baby’s father. Mary faced the traumatic possibility Joseph would divorce her for adultery. She also lived with the wagging tongues and snied remarks of the gossips in Nazareth. I’ve always believed one reason she made the trip to Elisabeth’s home in the Judean hills – at least a 50 mile walk – was to get away from the ugly town chatter about her pregnancy. She and Joseph together made the seventy-five mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, with Mary probably bouncing on a donkey although in the last days of her pregnancy. Right after they arrived and before she could rest from the long journey, birth pains hit, and the baby and future King of kings was born in a stable. Then, some weeks later after the visit of the Wise Men, an angel of the Lord told Joseph in a dream to get up and take the baby to Egypt because Herod would try to kill him. It was another 100 mile walk, but this time with an infant. Have you ever wondered when Joseph and Mary were bone tired if the devil tempted them to stop short of Egypt? But they didn’t – they persisted; they obeyed.

To me, Joseph and Mary were each Olympic champions, and so much more. In fact, no world class athlete has suffered to win the gold quite like Joseph and Mary! No, they didn’t get a gold medal, but they paid the price and successfully brought the Messiah into the world.

The Apostle Paul understood the relationship between suffering and success too, and suffered greatly. He also taught Timothy to “endure hardness [as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”

If I have succeeded in focusing your thinking, dear reader, you might want to ponder what else John O’Sullivan says about the relationship between suffering and success. He, of course, applies it to athletes. You, will want to apply it to your own life. This includes your family and how you rear your children, as well as your career. And if you are a pastor, apply it to how you lead and build leaders in your church.

O’Sullivan continues:

“Now I know that genetics, deliberate training, coaching, and a whole slew of things go into the development of athletes. To place all your emphasis on any one factor is ill advised, and very narrow minded. Some people do this with the so-called “10,000 Hour Rule” of deliberate practice, while others believe that you either have talent or you do not.

“I am in the business of training elite soccer players. I have been doing this for nearly 20 years. I have learned that no one factor takes an athlete to the next level. A combination of factors do, and for me,  an athlete’s willingness to suffer, his or her comfort with being uncomfortable, is often a strong determinant of whether they reach their potential, or instead become another one of those “shoulda, coulda, woulda” players.

“The current mythology of overnight success, where we are led to believe every success story was born with the talent, has blinded us to the fact that the elite athletes we see on television have all suffered. They have practiced and toiled for long hours, day after day, when no one was watching. Time and again, when they wanted to quit, they did one more repetition, ran one more lap, and trained a few minutes longer. They gave up time with friends and family to pursue their craft. They make it look easy because of the thousands of hours that they made it hard on themselves. They willingly made themselves uncomfortable! They suffered because they knew that they had to in order to succeed.

“Most of the athletes I work with will not ever achieve their true potential, because the thought of suffering and discomfort frightens them. Some just do not like being out of their comfort zone. Others have a fixed mindset, and are afraid if they give their best and come up short they are some kind of failure (which of course they are not), so they never try.

“Far too many have been coddled by their parents and protected from failure. Others have had coaches who let them give less than their best because they were a 12-year-old star. When a coach got tough, these players were accustomed to backing off. When they encountered adversity, their parents stepped in and intervened, instead of using it as a teachable moment. When given the choice of whether to embrace suffering, or pull back, these athletes often chose the easy path. That is why they will not make it.

“Anson Dorrance is the women’s soccer coach of the twenty-two time National Champion University of North Carolina. He once encountered Mia Hamm, the reigning college player of the year, and already one of the top players in the world, training by herself early one morning on a hot, humid summer day. As he watched, she pushed herself through sprint after sprint, falling to the ground and gasping for breath after each. He wrote the following message to her:

‘The true vision of a champion is someone bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion, when no one else is watching.’

“Mia Hamm went on to become the best player in the world, not only because she had talent and great coaching, but because she was willing to suffer more than her competitors.

“Are you instilling a willingness to suffer in your athletes? In your kids? Are you challenging them, making them uncomfortable, pushing them hard, and then pushing a little harder?

“Are your kids willing to suffer?

“If they are not, they can still do a lot of things in life, but becoming an elite athlete is probably not one of them.

“Help them build the will to suffer, to endure in the face of great obstacles, and the ability to cherish the opportunity to struggle, and chances are far greater they will reach their potential in whatever field they choose!

“Suffering is the elite athlete’s best friend!”

Would you please let me challenge you, dear reader, is there not also a sense in which suffering can be your best friend, and your church’s too?


John O’Sullivan started the Changing the Game Project in 2012 after two decades as a soccer player and coach on the youth, high school, college and professional level.  He is the author of the #1 bestselling books Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes; Giving Youth Sports Back to our Kids; and Is it Wise to Specialize? John is also a regular contributor for, and his writing has been featured in many publications including The Huffington Post and Soccer America. John is an internationally known speaker for coaches, parents and youth sports organizations, and has spoken for TEDx, the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, IMG Academy, and at numerous other events throughout the US, Canada and Europe.
Originally from New York, John is a 1994 graduate of Fordham University, where he was a team captain as a senior, and a member of the 1990 Patriot League Championship team.  After a stint playing professionally for the Wilmington (NC) Hammerheads of the USL, John began his coaching career as the Varsity Boys Soccer Coach at Cardinal Gibbons HS in Raleigh, NC.  He then moved on to become the Assistant Men’s and Women’s Soccer Coach at the University of Vermont, before delving into the world of youth club soccer.  Since that time, John has worked as a Director of Coaching for Nordic Spirit SC (Vt), Ann Arbor Youth Soccer Association (MI) and from 2006-2011 as the Executive Director of Oregon Rush Soccer Club in Bend, OR.  Most recently he was the Central Oregon Regional Training Center Director for the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer, before turning his attention full time to the Changing the Game Project in 2013.  He holds his USSF A License, NSCAA Advanced National Diploma, and US Youth Soccer National Youth Coaching License.
John received his BA from Fordham University, and his Masters from the University of Vermont. He resides in beautiful Bend, OR, with his wife, Dr Lauren O’Sullivan, and two wonderful children and aspiring young athletes: Maggie Shea, age 9, and Tiernan, age 8.

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